Educators face tough decisions as hard times linger

As enrollment hit record lows at Stamford’s state-operated Wright Technical High School last year, and per-student costs soared to $27,000, state education officials decided they had run out of options. Facing a deep recession and intense pressure to slash budgets, they shut down the troubled school.

But the closing unleashed a wave of anger, including a tense grilling of state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan last month by agitated Stamford lawmakers.

“Would you agree,” State Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, pressed McQuillan during a legislative hearing, “that students from Stamford had their treasure ripped away?”

In the state’s technical high schools and many other local schools across Connecticut, that kind of frustration is a sign of things to come.

With budgets at the breaking point, schools face the prospect of layoffs, the loss of popular programs or even closings. In Wallingford, the school board last week proposed a budget that would lay off more than 80 people, including teachers. In Naugatuck, officials are discussing the possibility of closing one of the district’s historic school buildings. In Norwich, a school board subcommittee has recommended dropping middle school sports and middle school French and Spanish classes.

The outlook is even bleaker when federal stimulus money dries up in 2012, educators warn.

“It’s going to be a very difficult time for school boards and school districts,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

In Stamford, officials questioned McQuillan’s authority to close Wright Tech even though its enrollment had dropped to fewer than 140 students. The school has a capacity of more than 650.

“If you cannot close a Wright Tech where it was costing $27,000 a student in a day when people are looking for efficiency . . . what are you going to do when you run into something that affects more people?” Cirasuolo said.

Today, Wright Tech stands empty, a symbol of the financial strains sweeping the state’s 18 technical high schools. Few school districts have been harder hit by the recession. In the past year, the 10,000-student technical school system lost dozens of jobs under a retirement incentive program, shut down a popular nursing program for adult students, and ran short of supplies in trade shops.

State Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, said the economic downturn has exacerbated the plight of the technical schools but contends that the schools did not have adequate support even prior to the recession.

As for Wright Tech, officials are talking about eventually reopening the school, but that will require a rebound in the economy and a rethinking of how technical education should be offered, said Gaffey, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee and an ardent supporter of the technical school system. “We should never get to a point where we have a model of education costing $27,000 per student,” he said.

The shutdown at Wright Tech came as the state education department, like other state agencies, was under mounting pressure to cut costs.

“It’s one of those impossible choices to make. It was a very expensive program for a very limited number of students,” McQuillan told legislators at the recent hearing.

Before shutting it down, the state had struggled for years to figure out what to do about Wright Tech. Two years ago, officials appointed veteran educator Joseph LaVorgna to try to rescue the school. LaVorgna, who had a long, successful run heading Bullard-Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport, was convinced he could do the job.

Over the years, Wright Tech’s reputation had slipped. Test scores were low and suspension rates high. Efforts to shore up academics and improve programs did little to bolster enrollment. “It was chaotic, a mess,” LaVorgna said.

In a recent interview, he said he believes he could have turned the school around in three to five years.

He had been at Wright Tech just 10 months when the school was shut down – the victim, he says, of years of decline and persistent rumors that it was on the verge of closing. Combined with the state budget crisis, “It was the perfect storm,” he said.

“I could not control the poor economy. I could not control this longstanding belief the school had to close.”

For all its troubles, Wright Tech has loyal supporters who believe it could have been saved.

“We’ve worked extremely hard to keep the school open,” said Jack Condlin, president of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce.

“Honestly,” he said, “I don’t think it was the budget crunch that closed the school. I think that was an excuse.” Nevertheless, he said, “In retrospect, maybe the better thing was to let the school close. The school had deteriorated to such a point.”

Today, Condlin heads a committee of educators, business leaders, alumni and others who are making plans to reopen Wright Tech. McQuillan has said the school could open again by 2014. The legislature has authorized more than $90 million to renovate the aging building, but the project is on hold pending decisions about the school’s future.

The start of construction would be a sign the state is serious about technical education in Stamford, said Sen. McDonald, who has sharply criticized both McQuillan and Gov. M. Jodi Rell over the shutdown of Wright Tech.

“When is the governor committed to releasing the $90 million?” he said.

He also said the future of Wright Tech “depends to a very significant degree on the fate of the economy.”

Is he optimistic the school will reopen by 2014?

McDonald paused several seconds. “I’m hopeful,” he said, “but tainted by experience.”